Skip to main content
Dryad logo

Response diversity in corals: hidden differences in bleaching mortality among cryptic Pocillopora species


Burgess, Scott et al. (2021), Response diversity in corals: hidden differences in bleaching mortality among cryptic Pocillopora species, Dryad, Dataset,


Variation among functionally similar species in their response to environmental stress buffers ecosystems from changing states. Functionally similar species may often be cryptic species representing evolutionarily distinct genetic lineages that are morphologically indistinguishable. However, the extent to which cryptic species differ in their response to stress, and could therefore provide a source of response diversity, remains unclear because they are often not identified or are assumed to be ecologically equivalent. Here, we uncover differences in the bleaching response between sympatric cryptic species of the common Indo-Pacific coral, Pocillopora. In April 2019, prolonged ocean heating occurred at Moorea, French Polynesia. 72% of pocilloporid colonies bleached after 22 days of severe heating (>8°C-days) at 10 m depth on the north shore fore reef. Colony mortality ranged from 11% to 42% around the island four months after heating subsided. The majority (86%) of pocilloporids that died from bleaching belonged to a single haplotype, despite twelve haplotypes, representing at least five species, being sampled. Mitochondrial (open reading frame) sequence variation was greater between the haplotypes that experienced mortality versus haplotypes that all survived than it was between nominal species that all survived. Colonies >30 cm in diameter were identified as the haplotype experiencing the most mortality, and in 1125 colonies that were not genetically identified, bleaching and mortality increased with colony size. Mortality did not increase with colony size within the haplotype suffering the highest mortality, suggesting that size-dependent bleaching and mortality at the genus level was caused instead by differences among cryptic species. The relative abundance of haplotypes shifted between February and August, driven by declines in the same common haplotype for which mortality was estimated directly, at sites where heat accumulation was greatest, and where larger colony sizes occurred. The identification of morphologically indistinguishable species that differ in their response to thermal stress, but share a similar ecological function in terms of maintaining a coral-dominated state, has important consequences for uncovering response diversity that drives resilience, especially in systems with low or declining functional diversity.

Usage Notes

Please see the README.txt file for metadata and description of R code files


National Science Foundation, Award: 18-298867

National Science Foundation, Award: 16-37396

National Science Foundation, Award: 18-29898